On writing a novel

This is a quick recap of things I’ve learned while I was writing a science fiction novel. I think most of it probably applies to any genre of fiction, and maybe some of it even applies to literary fiction. This is a ‘notes-to-self’ post as much as anything else.

Pre-writing

There’s the pre-writing phase:

  • Thinking and planning

The thinking and planning is exactly what it implies. It’s working out how the story works, the plot structure, the characters, world building, and the research. The tangible outcome for me is a numbered list that explains in a few words what happens in each chapter.

Every writer has their own way of doing the pre-writing phase from not writing anything down and being completely spontaneous, to writing an elaborate outline, which is basically a summarised version of the novel.

Writing phases

There are three phases to the writing:

  • The draft
  • Rewriting
  • Polishing

The draft (or first draft) is about getting something down. Don’t worry too much about the quality, focus on getting it completed. Avoid going back and rewriting during the drafting phase. (It’s okay to change glaring problems like getting a character’s name wrong and factual details like that.)

Rewriting is where I replace my first ideas with my second ideas. First ideas are often flawed or can be improved on. The rewriting phase is also where I improve the language. The draft resembles Young Adult fiction, but the rewriting phase elevates it and makes it more sophisticated. I’m also rewriting the draft for clarity, to make sure that things make sense. This often involves explaining ideas that exist in my head into words that are easy to understand, and accurately represent those images. I’m also ensuring that the sentences read smoothly. I am inserting plot details, hooks, and posing questions to make the text more dynamic.

The polishing phase is a basic read though, looking for simple typos and changing the odd word. It’s mainly a final quality control check.

Momentum

I’m not sure if I believe in the need to write every day, but I’ve found that it’s beneficial to have some form of inertia. This is especially true of both the draft and the rewriting phases. It’s similar to how runners get into a rhythm when they are running. Push yourself without burning out with a stitch.

Navigation

Maybe this one affects some people more than others. I need a clear sense of knowing where I am within the process. It motivates me to know that I’m editing paragraph 75 of a 150 paragraph chapter. It’s also motivational to set myself comfortably obtainable targets. This centres around knowing how much work I can get through in a writing session and extrapolating that into knowing when I can expect to finish that phase of the writing.

Rewards and breaks

Writing a novel is hard work, especially the rewriting phase which can feel like wading through treacle. It requires discipline. Another aspect of pacing myself is taking breaks and rewards. I might, for example, break a rewriting session into two parts and make a tea or coffee between them. When I’ve completed the target for the writing session target, I reward myself. It could be a something like a beer or a trivial thing like a writing a blog post (weirdly enough, that's like switching off for me), or going for a walk.

Tools of the trade

There’s a certain ritual to the writing process. It’s good to enjoy the writing, especially if it is hard work. It’s good to get a sense of satisfaction from the experience. The tools of the trade can become part of the ritual, and part of the satisfaction. They can indirectly help with the motivation. The tools of the trade can be pretty much anything, from the software I’m using to write, to the room I’m writing in and the desk I’m writing on. None of it needs to be particularly sophisticated, fancy, or expensive. But I do have to be comfortable with it, and it has suit my writing process, taste, and habits.

Blocks and low-motivation

I’m not sure if I believe that there’s such a thing as ‘writer’s block’. It’s like believing in an ill omen, it’s a superstition. If I’m not writing there are usually reasons why.

  • I can’t focus, or be bothered (or I don’t have time).
  • I’m not sure what’s going to happen next or how to solve a technical or creative challenge, and I need time to think about it.
  • I allow my momentum to drop (because I feel that I’m progressing sufficiently fast), but then I struggle to regain the momentum.